For over a century, social conservatives have demanded a ban on sex education. Whether they were pushing for outright bans on curricula they perceived as tax-funded perversion of innocent schoolchildren, or promoting more subtle erosions of sex ed in the form of “abstinence-only” programs that often take the “sex” out of “sex education,” banning sex ed has been on the conservative agenda since the subject arrived in U.S. schools.
Now, the choreography of such curricular controversies is predictable. Liberals often respond defensively, highlighting the moderate messaging of even “comprehensive” programs –- who’s against STD and pregnancy prevention? They also tend to note sex ed’s minor role in students’ overall academic experience: In 2014, fewer than half of high schools and only 20 percent of middle schools provided instruction on all topics the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers essential to sexual health education; 88 percent of schools allowed parents to opt out completely.
There’s a way to end this century-long trend, in which sex ed lands low on the list of learning priorities, whether begrudgingly or by design: Make every class sex education.
Picture this: Preschoolers practicing consent by asking each other before hugging or pushing on the swings. Kindergartners calling “private parts” by their anatomical names without shame in science. Middle-school students of all genders learning not just about “managing” menstruation in health class but also how it is experienced across cultures, from the surprisingly deregulated American tampon industry to how lack of access to feminine products keeps African girls out of school. Teenagers analyzing romantic scenes in in English class. Students of all ages contemplating philosophies of free will and asking how sex shapes history, from defining marriage to policing prostitution to Roe v. Wade.
“Picture this: Preschoolers practicing consent by asking each other before hugging or pushing on the swings.”
Right now, education about sexuality is cordoned off in one discrete class that kids dismiss as a joke. That class becomes a political lightning rod, and often gets watered down or cut entirely. Instead, we should integrate it throughout the curriculum, a move that reflects how sexuality is woven into everyday life.
Yes, into children’s lives, too. Even the most sheltered child observes the growing bellies of women around her, spots adults sharing a kiss, gets an invitation ― or extends one ― to play doctor, gets teased about a crush or happens upon a porn site. The news cycle is newly inescapable, and unquestionably sexualized, from disturbing stories like Me Too and the president paying off Stormy Daniels, to uplifting accounts of Adam Rippon reveling in the novelty of being an unabashedly gay Olympian and 2017’s ubiquitous pink pussy hat.
The honest, unapologetic engagement I advocate would have been impossible in previous eras. Early sex educators broke repressive Victorian silence about sex, but their curricula also aligned with a “social hygiene” movement that was preoccupied with preserving white “civilization.” As late as the 1960s, advocates of the most adventurous forms of sex education ― warning young women of the perils of “petting” and including 12th grade lessons in making shopping lists (for girls) and saving money (for boys) under the guise of “preparing for marriage” –- faced well-organized opposition that railed against any mention of sex at school as tantamount to sex instruction.
What those opponents wanted, and often achieved, was silence about sexual matters in public schools. Anti-sex ed pamphlets like the 1968 best-seller Is The Schoolhouse the Place to Teach Raw Sex? warned that hippie sex educators were plotting to enslave children to their basest desires, priming them for communist takeover. Faced with such extreme opposition at the local and state levels, many districts scaled back their programs and buried the “sex” content of those that survived, favoring bland titles like “Family Life Education.”
“Facing extreme opposition at the local and state levels, many districts scaled back their sex ed programs and buried the “sex” content of those that survived.”
That generation of opponents won some battles in steadfastly refusing to tolerate any talk about sex at school, but by the late 1960s, it was clear they were losing the war. Ironically, due in part to their intense condemnation of sex education, talk about sex at school and in schools reached previously unimaginable volumes.
By the mid-1970s, many Christian conservatives no longer defined sex as unspeakable, but sought to control how it was addressed, understandably starting far from schools within the heterosexual nuptial bed. In 1976, evangelical activists Beverly and Tim LaHaye published their landmark sex manual The Act of Marriage, which acknowledged the importance of sexual pleasure within Christian marriages but condemned its pursuit anywhere else.
This rhetorical climate birthed the abstinence-only curricula that expanded from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Conservatives could no longer suppress talk about sex, so they did their best to direct this discourse to promote traditional moral lessons.
A slew of recent studies show abstinence-only education to be largely ineffective at preventing premarital sex, its own stated goal, as well at reducing rates of STDs and teen pregnancy (comprehensive programs fare better). In 2018, the “family values” ideology that once united the social and political conservatives that have been its loudest champions, and sex education’s loudest critics, is in tatters.
Trumpism neatly symbolizes this decline. The heirs of the 1960s religious conservatives who despaired that “schools have taken God out and put sex in” can no longer make such attacks with a straight face. After all, in 2018, they embrace a thrice-married man who’s admitted to adultery and sexual assault, and who effuses far too enthusiastically about his daughter’s body.
But the shift is bigger than Donald Trump. Decades of cultural, social and political change have made a gag order on talk about sex with young people unrealistic, and right now is as good a moment as ever to jettison the stand-alone sex ed class that has been the standard for even longer.
“Decades of cultural, social and political change have made a gag order on talk about sex with young people unrealistic. Now is as good a moment as ever to jettison the stand-alone sex ed class.”
Radical as integrating sex ed across the curriculum may sound, some institutions are already doing it, from gender-neutral preschools in Sweden to a statewide LGBTQ history requirement in California to new UNESCO guidelines that emphasize preventing gender-based violence as much as teen pregnancy and STDs. Such approaches would hardly reshape kids’ education beyond recognition, but would make it more relevant to the world around them. Educators and policymakers would continue to develop curricula and classroom practices that serve their communities, determining how to integrate sex education across classroom experiences.
Some opponents will certainly perceive this approach as an attempt to “sneak it in.” That was the accusation made by one group of enraged parents in their successful case to dismantle the famously controversial 1970s social studies curriculum “Man: A Course of Study.”
Young people deserved better, more honest education about sexuality and its place in human experience then, and they still do. By charging schools with openly acknowledging and addressing sexuality across the curriculum, we might finally be able to give it to them.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at The New School. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, and the host of the “Past Present” podcast.